WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration announced Monday that it will expand flights to Cuba, take steps to relax restrictions on U.S. travelers to the island and lift Trump-era restrictions on remittances immigrants can send to the island. people on the island.
The State Department said in a statement that it will eliminate the current limit of $1,000 per quarter on family remittances and allow non-family remittances, which will support independent Cuban entrepreneurs. The United States will also allow regular and charter flights to places beyond Havana, according to the State Department.
The administration said it will also take steps to reinstate the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, which has a backlog of more than 20,000 applications, and will increase consular services and visa processing.
“With these actions, our goal is to support the aspirations of freedom and greater economic opportunities of Cubans so that they can lead a successful life at home,” added State Department spokesman Ned Price. “We continue to call on the Cuban government to immediately release political prisoners, to respect the fundamental freedoms of the Cuban people, and to allow the Cuban people to determine their own future.”
The policy changes come after a review that began shortly after a series of widespread protests on the island last July.
Former President Donald Trump had increased sanctions against Cuba, including the cancellation of permits to send remittances and the punishment of oil tankers bound for the island.
These measures and the pandemic have contributed to an economic crisis in Cuba, where people are experiencing shortages of basic goods, power cuts and rationing.
The economic situation brought thousands of people to the streets of Cuba on July 11, 2021, the largest protests in decades on the island. Many people were frustrated with shortages and low wages, as well as with the socialist government. Non-governmental organizations have reported more than 1,400 arrests and 500 people sentenced to up to 20 years in prison for hooliganism or sedition.
In recent weeks, both the US and Cuban governments have started some talks, amid a surge of Cubans trying to immigrate to the US illegally.
The first week of April, the US Embassy in Havana resumed processing visas for Cubans, albeit on a limited basis, more than four years after suspending consular services on the island amid a souring of relations.
Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the measures send the “wrong message” to the government of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel. Menéndez was particularly critical of the administration’s decision to reinstate group travel for educational and cultural exchanges, as well as some travel for professional meetings and professional research on the island.
“I am dismayed to learn that the Biden administration will begin authorizing group travel to Cuba through tourism-like visits,” Menendez said. “To be clear, those who still believe that increased travel will bring about democracy in Cuba are simply in a state of denial.”
White House officials, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, noted that the Treasury Department has the authority to audit groups that organize trips and will make sure the trips are purposeful and in accordance with the American law.
An official who defended the move noted that the president has underscored his belief that “Americans are the best ambassadors of democratic values.”
Rodríguez reported from Havana.